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Enlightened: Season 1 - Mike White interview

Enlightened

Compiled by Jack Foley

MIKE White is the writer and executive producer of HBO’s comedy Enlightened, starring Laura Dern as a career woman changing the world after a workplace breakdown.

White has Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks, Stepford Wives, The Good Girl, Year of the Dog, School of Rock and Nacho Libre on his CV as actor, writer and director.

We asked how this show comes about…
Mike White: Laura came up with the idea. I had my own things that weren’t exactly the same but sort of dovetailed. I felt that if we did it in a close-to-the-vest tone it would be a really challenging and interesting show.

Q: What did you find interesting?
Mike White: When I was younger I wanted all the scathing critique of society because that’s where I was: “Oh it’s all bullshit.” You read satire, critical theory and you think: “This is truth.” Then you get to the end of that and say: “There’s no truth, nothing is real and it’s all bullshit“… And that kind of cynicism is throughout our culture. Then you sometimes end up reading these [laughter] self help books that I’ve read. It isn’t really such deep stuff. At the same time I kind of needed to read it.

Q: What sort of person is Amy?
Mike White: She feels everything really intensely. She’s the kind of person who would be raging one minute – then take her to the beach and she’s zenning out. But the more interesting part is what happens after that. You have friends in AA and they are evangelical towards this new way of philosophising about things and yet you’re like: “Well, you still owe me money and you crashed my car.” So, the show starts with her coming back to all the blood on the floor she’s left and how she’s going to deal with it. I think that’s something I recognise in myself.

Q: Are there any Hollywood experiences in there?
Mike White: Well, last time I did TV I had a nervous breakdown because I was so burnt out fighting all the time with everybody. I had the big ‘fuck you’ moment then I had to go back to work trying to pretend I could still be the captain of the ship and wasn’t crazy. I thought that would be the funniest part of the show – somebody asserting they’re not only fine, they’re better than ever to people who’ve seen them at their lowest. It’s a theme in my life [laughter].This is where I relate to the character – I’m sensitive, I’m very human and at the same time I really wanna win.

Q: She is an unusual kind of hero…
Mike White: Anti-heroes are a staple of cable shows – you have Dexter, a serial killer, you can have people doing drugs and fucking and whatever it is. I wanted to swim the other direction – to allow it to be as real as life. You can be with her and then you can be horrified by her, your heart breaks and you also find it absurd. I really like stuff that stays with me and usually that’s stuff that isn’t totally packaged, where you are left with this kind of sense of, “what did I just watch?” And have to digest it after it’s over. Not a lot of TV is geared to do that. TV is like a drug you go to because you know what you’re gonna get.

Q: What is it with Amy’s mom?
Mike White: I don’t think the mom is a bitch or a bad mom necessarily. There’s certain people who just don’t wanna have the heavy conversation and that’s all Amy wants. Neither her ex husband nor her mum wants those conversations. People who come out of rehab want to read you their apology letters but they don’t do it when you’re ready; they do it when they’re ready. Like – I was ready for this letter a long time ago and now you just wanna sit down and have your moment? It feels like it’s another part of their narcissistic spinout. I think the scene where she reads her letter to her mum; I think it’s really reflective of the entire tone of the show. You see the mum’s point of view as like, “Why are we doing this?” You feel for Amy, you feel for her mum, there’s no right person here; it’s just a very human situation.

Q: Why cast Laura’s mom as her mom?
Mike White: They’ve worked together before – but Diane usually plays these salt of the earth, big personality characters. This woman’s real shut down and reserved – the opposite of Amy, and the opposite of Diane too. So part of the fun is to watch Diane play that kind of person.

Q: What about Luke Wilson as her ex?
Mike White: I think it’s an interesting relationship because it feels very real to me – there’s an intimacy there that’s hard to replace in a new relationship. That’s something that happens a lot in life. I’ve known Luke for years but haven’t worked with him before. I think that you believe him in the part. You can see why she loves him – even as selfish as he is; he’s winging it despite what a loser he is on paper.

Q: Did you expect the critical response?
Mike White: I’m not used to everyone liking things I do and we didn’t get uniform praise… especially at the beginning. I think people were trying to figure out what we were doing. There was this sense of: “She’s annoying, why would we follow this character?” And then as each episode unfolds people get more invested. What I’ve been excited about is how deep the reactions have been and how, when people are writing about the show, there are a lot of great, thoughtful responses.

Q: How does the season develop?
Mike White: Ultimately, she realises this place she’s been shunted down in the basement at work is actually a window into some of the malfeasance that’s going on in the Company. So she realises she could become a whistleblower. And so the next season is going into the David/Goliath story of somebody who is hell bent on exposing what’s wrong with this corporate culture.

Q: You filmed season one before the Occupy movement sprang up – do they feel quite Amy?
Mike White: I think its very Amy – we want change but what is that change? There is stuff that is true, like the disparity of wealth and how it feels like it’s getting more extreme. And there’s all this social shifting – how do we wrest power back from the world of the Corporation? And I think that’s something that the show is talking about. The question is – what is the next step and what does that look like? I don’t know the answer to but it’s an interesting thing to explore dramatically.

Enlightened: Season 1 is released on DVD on Monday, January 14, 2013